May 27, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Big Oil's climate earthquake

Illustration of a seismometer.
Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

A rat-tat-tat burst of events Wednesday could mark a turning point in pressure against Big Oil to act more aggressively on global warming.

Catch up fast: In a span of hours, ExxonMobil shareholders voted to add at least two new board members nominated by activist investors (a third nominee's vote is outstanding).

  • Chevron shareholders backed a resolution urging emissions cuts from use of its products in the economy, called Scope 3.
  • Royal Dutch Shell was ordered by a Dutch court to slash emissions well beyond current plans.

Why it matters: The investor votes, especially after Exxon's intense fight against the activist slate, make crystal clear that mainstream finance wants stronger steps on climate.

  • In one sign of this trend, asset management giant BlackRock voted for three of the four insurgent directors nominated by the investment group Engine No. 1.

Meanwhile, the Dutch court decision is the first to order a major oil company to make its emissions plans more consistent with the Paris Climate agreement targets.

  • It could spur legal action against other oil and gas firms, but also other industrial giants too.
  • “This case does open the door for challenges to other energy-intensive sectors,” Liz Hypes, an analyst with the consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, tells the Wall Street Journal.

What they're saying: Energy experts tell Axios the court ruling and Exxon votes illustrate what could be a significant shift.

  • They "reflect the growing societal expectations that oil firms be able to demonstrate their business strategies are aligned with our long-term climate goals and resilient to climate risk," says Jason Bordoff, who heads a Columbia University energy think tank.
  • "The era of 'always be drilling' oil major capex has clearly come to an end with today's events. Investors are betting there are profitable ways for legacy energy companies to transform themselves in alignment with the net zero [emissions] imperative," says climate finance expert Daniel Firger, managing director at Great Circle Capital Advisors.

Yes, but: The substantive effects of Wednesday's action won't be known for a long time.

  • It's impossible to say, for now, how much influence Exxon's small share of new board members will have on the company's direction.
  • Shell said it would appeal the decision in a statement that also touted its existing near-term targets and its plan to become a "net-zero" emitter by 2050.

Here's a little more from Bordoff, who was an energy aide in the Obama White House, on the rising climate pressure on oil majors:

  • "It is important to note that if the response is for companies to sell oil assets in order to reduce emissions from the oil they produce, global emissions will not decline if others just buy those assets and produce the oil, which is why it is urgent that policy and technology start to curb oil use that is still rising year after year."

Go deeper: Biden administration backs Trump-era Alaska oil drilling plans

Go deeper